Lingos: From language knowledge to communication skills

Global governance has expanded over the last two decades into long-term involvement in many countries. This long-term involvement may be compared to earlier European colonial governance, although they follow distinct models of knowledge and interaction. Today’s global multicultural models, which we may trace back to UNESCO’s 1950’s Statement on Race, explicitly reject the racial theories and hierarchies that legitimised earlier European colonial rule. Nevertheless, contemporary global governance has its own divisions and hierarchies, which are evident in its language knowledge policies.

Earlier European colonial governance was strongly influenced by anthropological models of knowledge. British colonial advisers deplored the weak language knowledge of colonial officers and made language and country knowledge a core aspect of its colonial service training. Conversely language and country knowledge does not feature in today’s global governance interventions, nor is it prioritised in the recruitment or training of staff.

So while aid organisations are establishing a long-term presence in many countries, this presence has not accompanied by strong language and country knowledge requirements in recruitment to aid organisations. Or rather the language requirement of global governance is global English, not the language of the country or community hosting the global aid sector. We see here how communication between the different aid organisations supersedes communication with the host population and its institutions. As such we see how international aid organisations are interlinked and evolving into a global community. Meanwhile communication with the host populations is increasingly through the medium of English, and those locals who know English acting as intermediaries. Such trends are reinforced by how the global aid sector is increasingly organised as a fortified aid community behind barbed wire following security and insurance concerns, as Mark Duffield has explored (Duffield, 2012). Consequently, aid workers’ relations with the host population are increasingly circumscribed and organised at what is deemed a safe and securitised distance.

The assumptions of global governance are evident in the skills that organisations require of their staff. In the 1990s, the British Foreign Office shifted its interest to generic thematic concerns such as global human rights and environmental concerns. Thus those recruited were more likely to have a background in international studies or human rights than languages and area studies. The Foreign Office under the coalition government has shifted back to renewed emphasis on language and country knowledge. However the British Department of International Development (DFID), whose status has grown relative to the Foreign Office over the last two decades, maintains the thematic approach, and its emphasis on generic skills, rather than languages and area knowledge.

The outlook of DFID and the global aid sector follow trends in North American and British schooling and higher education philosophy. Across British education there has been a shift of emphasis from teaching knowledge to teaching skills and attitudes. This shift is evident in the re-naming and re-focusing of English and mathematics in primary schools to literacy and numeracy. At the other end, this shift is evident in the behavioural competency models being applied to academics by human resource managers, or the skills components and learning objectives that academics are required to list in their course guides. The emphasis on (communication) skills and attitudes over knowledge is illustrated by how multiculturalism and cultural respect are central to the UK curriculum, yet there has been the decline of language knowledge, evident in the relative, and in some instances, absolute decline of numbers of students taking language exams at school and language degrees at university.

Given these educational and governmental trends, it is unsurprising that knowledge of languages, aside from English, is not central to employment in aid organisations. The emphasis on recruited staff is on market flexibility and communication skills, rather than embedded knowledge, again reflecting broader employment changes (Sennett, 2006). For while international aid organisations are developing permanent presences in many countries, many aid workers are employed on short-term contracts, and are commonly responsible for their own employability skills, rather than the organisation. The experience of casualisation means international aid staff are less likely to develop in-depth country and language knowledge. The demands of market flexibility compound these educational and institutional trends against language knowledge. Furthermore, language skills have little relevance for a bunkered, isolated aid community, discouraged from personally interacting with locals.

The integration of aid organisations into global governance seeks to be a bulwark against the insecurities of globalisation. However, the language knowledge models implicit in the global aid sector suggest the alienating and hierarchical character of contemporary global governance, and its weak relation to the host population. The language politics of global governance belie the idealised discourse of global villages, partnerships and participatory or grassroots development. International aid organisations in their bunkered complexes are increasingly isolated from the host community and the realities on the ground.  As such the evolving global governance has a contradictory character at odds with the sustainable development relations it seeks to engender.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012


  • Duffield, Mark (2012) ‘Risk Management and the Bunkering of the Aid Industry.’ Development Dialogue, No. 58, 21-36.
  •  Sennett, Richard (2006) The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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